Kelly delivers dazzling show of bipartisanship — however unlikely — at State of the State

January 12, 2022 3:33 am

While Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly may not have performed her State of the State address to an adoring crowd, she did revisit popular refrains throughout the speech. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, Kelly image Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector, crowd image Wikimedia Commons)

If Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly was an aging pop diva, last night’s annual State of the State address would have been a spirited greatest hits show, packed with favorites such as balancing the budget, supporting education and economic development. She previewed a new effort, repealing the sales tax on food, and dipped into her back catalog to encourage expanding Medicaid. Ever the ambitious performer, Kelly wanted to remind folks of her range as a Democratic governor in this deep red state.

Her grand finale struck me, though. Kelly took a virtuoso tour through that old favorite, bipartisanship.

The tune has fallen out of favor for many Democratic and Republican performers, who see it as naive at best and destructive at worst. But Kelly knows that working across the aisle helped propel her to the governor’s office, and she’s not about to abandon such a core part of her setlist.

“When I talk to Kansans from all political parties in all corners of the state, the most common theme I hear is: ‘I am so sick and tired of all the political fighting,’ ” the governor told legislators Tuesday evening. “And usually, they’re not talking about the people in this building. They’re talking about in their own lives. And the feeling that politics now dominates everything.”

Note what our bravura performer does here. Kelly doesn’t cast this criticism as coming from her. After all, what Democrat would want to say such a thing in a chamber dominated by the GOP? Instead, she suggests the complaint originated with everyday folks, the people who might just be constituents of her audience members.

She continued: “The friendships that are being torn apart. Social media feeds you’re afraid to look at anymore. Family members you can barely talk to. Politics rearing its ugly head in our children’s schools. I’m sure all of you in this room can think of people in your lives who, just a few years ago, you could have a civil conversation and talk about the issues of the day — and now, you really can’t. It’s all become so toxic.”

The sleight of hand here is masterful, the equivalent of a skilled singer who has lost a few notes from her top end but knows just how to compensate.

What Kelly really means when she says “politics” is conservative extremism. Republican operatives created controversies about critical race theory and COVID-19 restrictions, exploiting the public’s fear and ignorance. Rightwing media channels, on television and online, provide a constant IV drop of outrage.

Again, Kelly knows she can’t say this in front of a Republican-dominated audience. So she creates an interloper — “politics” — that can be blamed for the situation instead.

She goes even further to make sure the audience doesn’t turn away: “Now the people in this chamber didn’t cause this problem. Much bigger forces are at play. But the people in this chamber can be part of the solution.”

What a climax.

Rather than causing Kansas’ destructive partisanship, Kelly says, the state’s senators and representatives can instead repair it by working together. How wholesome those words sound! If folks just join hands and collaborate, we can create a fabulous state together.

Kelly’s performance had the peculiar quality of being both deeply true and moving while also utterly unrealistic. While she sang of bipartisanship, only Democrats in the chamber stood to applaud. Republicans remained seated and silent, denying the state’s top elected official a smidgen of respect.

Republicans remain seated and silent while Democrats stand to applaud Gov. Laura Kelly during her State of the State speech Tuesday in the House Chamber at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

The Republican Governor’s Association underscored the point, tweeting that Kelly was a “far-left radical who takes orders from her Party Bosses in D.C.” Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins was close behind, calling her “so out of step with the people of Kansas.”

This is obviously how sane and well-adjusted people react to calls for working together.

My column about an asteroid’s-worth of terrible proposals aimed at Kansas may have struck some readers as too dark, too early, but allow me a smidge more cynicism. Kelly’s words won’t heal our political divides. The Legislature won’t make the slightest effort this session to improve them, either.

I’ve written before, though, of Kelly’s expert political brain. While she refuses to paint herself with an ideological brush, she’s a diehard competitor and wants to win reelection.

Given those ambitions, given her accomplishments and given her vitriolic opposition, Kelly has decided on a simple course. She will sing the greatest hits, with a new number or two thrown in. She will proclaim the grand aria of bipartisanship, regardless of reality. Because when November rolls around this year, senators and representatives won’t be deciding whether she spends another four years as governor.

Kansas voters will. They liked what they heard the last time, odes to bipartisanship and all.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.